Watchdog finds charity’s behaviour in order but voices some concerns

A probe into the charity seeking to turn the controversial Thomas Heatherwick-designed Garden Bridge into reality has endorsed its operations – but identified shortfalls in risk assessment and contingency planning.

Government watchdog the Charity Commission launched an investigation into the workings of the Garden Bridge Trust last year in response to “a number of concerns” about the awarding of contracts and its governance.

The commission also looked at the charity’s funding but did not concern itself with the merits of the proposed structure over the river Thames or its over-arching funding package, which are both subject to separate investigations by the National Audit Office and the MP Margaret Hodge.

Releasing its findings, the commission said the trust’s awarding of contracts had been “robust” and that the trustees were meeting their duties and acting in compliance with charity law.

The report added that while the trust had not published the identities of all of its benefactors, the names had been revealed to commission staff who were satisfied they were “not party to the contracts awarded or recipients of the contracts’ income”.

But the four-page report found trustees had failed to “fully explore” opportunities to learn from “the critical paths of other comparable infrastructure projects and thus better enable themselves to assess project risk”.

The commission also said the charity fell short of expectations regarding its annual reporting and on its contingency financial arrangements if it was forced to close. “The charity holds no reserves but expects to meet any obligations from the use of its restricted funds,” the report said.

“Given the reliance on using restricted funds, the regulator would have expected a fuller description of how these funds could be used with greater detail on how the charity would meet its liabilities in the event of closure.”

Charity Commission chief operating officer David Holdsworth said that while there was considerable public debate about the project, the investigation had found that the trust was at least meeting its obligations as a registered charity and had the proper financial controls in place.

“Our role is not to comment on the merits of the project but to assess concerns about its governance and ensure it is compliant with the legal framework for charities,” he said.

“This case shows that high profile charities can attract considerable public scrutiny and the public rightly expect charities to be transparent and accountable.”

Trust chair Lord Mervyn Davies welcomed the commission’s findings and insisted the charity was “always looking to learn lessons and make improvements”.

He said: “We now intend to draw a line in the sand about historical aspects of this project delivered by other parties and get on to make the Garden Bridge a reality.”

The most recent cost estimate for the bridge’s construction came in at £185m but documents filed with Companies House saw the trust admitting it had no idea of what the final price tag would be.

Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office last year found that the £22.5m of taxpayers’ money committed to the project via the Department for Transport was likely to be lost if the project did not go ahead.

Margaret Hodge’s review of the project – commissioned by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan in September last year – is ongoing.